'Experience of a lifetime': Branson achieves space dream
Virgin Galactic founder's successful space voyage to usher in an era of space tourism
British billionaire Richard Branson flew into space on Sunday aboard a Virgin Galactic vessel, a voyage he described as the “experience of a lifetime” — and one he hopes will usher in an era of lucrative space tourism.
“Congratulations to all our wonderful team at Virgin Galactic for 17 years of hard, hard work to get us this far,” he said during a live feed as the VSS Unity spaceship glided back to Spaceport America in New Mexico.
It reached a peak altitude of around 85 kilometres — beyond the boundary of space, according to the United States — allowing the passengers to experience weightlessness and admire the Earth’s curvature.
The trip proceeded without drama, and touchdown occurred at around 9.40am Mountain Time (1540 GMT), about an hour after take-off.
The mission’s success means Branson has beaten fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos in the race to be the first tycoon to cross the final frontier in a ship built by a company he founded.
Earlier, a massive carrier plane took off and ascended to 50,000 feet before dropping VSS Unity to complete the rest of the flight using its rocket-powered engine.
The spaceplane carried two pilots and four passengers, including Branson.
The ship then re-entered the atmosphere, lowered its flexible wings and glided back to the runway.
A smiling Branson hugged loved ones after the trip.
“It’s a beautiful day to go to space,” the brash Brit wrote in a tweet earlier where he posted a video of himself biking to the base and meeting with his crewmates, all Virgin employees.
He also posted a picture of himself standing in a kitchen with SpaceX boss Elon Musk, who’d come to show his support.
Several tourists journeyed to the International Space Station in the 2000s, but on Russian rockets.
Branson’s official role is to evaluate the private astronaut experience to enhance the journey for future clients.
Branson, who founded the Virgin Group that today has interests in everything from commercial aviation to fitness centres, is known for his appetite for adventure and has set world records in hot air ballooning and boating.
“As a child, I wanted to go to space,” the 70-year-old wrote a few days ahead of his trip.
After Sunday, Virgin Galactic plans two further flights, and then the start of regular commercial operations from early 2022. The ultimate goal is to conduct 400 flights per year.
Some 600 tickets have already been sold to people from 60 different countries — including Hollywood celebrities — for prices ranging from $200,000 to $250,000.
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